Monday Challenge: Now It’s Personal

Hairy Frank eventually achieved levitation, but his mullet elected to stay behind and enlighten others. Namaste, Hairy Frank.

I’ve recently gotten back into journalling. I did it for many years, mostly in that awkward/angry period between 14 and 25, but stopped because:

1) Life happened. Shit got busy fast, yo.

2) I rather stupidly believed that, once I was past 25, I had most of life figured out. At least the stuff that I would have been journalling about, anyway. Which just goes to prove that, while age might come with its own indignities, nothing makes you cringe like Younger You. I mean, goddamn, I don’t regret stuff that I’ve done, but the stupid was thick on the ground some years.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I’ve started journalling again, and am currently trying to remember what faulty brand of logic led me to stop in the first place. Near as I can tell, it seems to be the same sort of logic that makes you stop working out just when you start feeling really strong and fit, because, hey, you don’t need it anymore.

Seriously, Younger Me: cringe.

I prefer to do my journalling offline, in an actual paper notebook, with a pen that spews ink. Like a Muggle. Not entirely sure why, though the possibility of destroying any incriminating evidence with nothing more than some gasoline and a BBQ lighter has come to mind. I’ve got so many safeguards on my computer these days–after the Great Hard Drive Failure of ’14–that I could reasonably resurrect anything if I had to.

So I’ve been getting my Carpal Tunnel on and scribbling in a notebook, filling it with…stuff. because that’s what a journal is, isn’t it? A repository for all the random crap that you don’t want cluttering up anywhere else, including the inside of your own skull? That, and drawings of dragons and robots.*

I recommend journalling to anyone who occasionally feels, to paraphrase Albus Dumbledore, as if there are too many thoughts inside your head. In the absence of a working Pensieve, a notebook can do.

And what do you write about? I’m so glad you asked.

Monday Challenge: write a journal entry. It may be your first, it may be your millionth. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is your subject. Write a journal entry about whatever the hell you’re thinking about right now. Your errands, your writing, your family, the way your neighbour has started doing topless yoga**. Even how weird journals are and how you don’t know what to write about. That was the subject of my first entry, and, damn, if that thing didn’t go on forever.

Go forth and write, goblins.

*To guard my thoughts. Obviously.

**Hairy Frank has a killer Peacock Pose.

Monday Challenge: ALL HAIL SYMBOLITRON

*something something the human condition something*

I was cleaning out my guest room the other day and found my degrees. And a copy of my first thesis.* As I leafed the mess of paper, I remembered long—sometimes very long—afternoons spent in tiny windowless rooms, debating the various merits of post-colonialist discourse versus post-modernist aesthetics. Sometimes those arguments were fun, sometimes they were interesting, and sometimes they were absolutely infuriating, but not a day goes past when I’m glad I don’t have to do it anymore.

However, I do remember once, at the Grad House**, we got to talking about what would happen if you came up with the symbolism first, and then wrote the story. Short answer: it would probably suck. Or be critically acclaimed. Or possibly both, because the two are not mutually exclusive.

So, in honour of that drunken conversation many autumns ago, here’s this week’s Monday Challenge:

Go to the Symbolitron. It will randomly generate a story and the symbolic meaning behind it. Pick one from the list it gives you, and then write the opening for that story. 

And if you want to do it in a bar in memory of me and my colleagues, more power to you.

*The second one I haven’t seen since I passed it in for final marking. Either I really don’t want to look at it anymore, or it flapped its covers and flew away to start a colony of post-colonial research proposals of its own.

**A bar, because the first rule of grad school is why meet in your office when you can meet in a pub?

Making It Worse: Why Awkward Characters Are The Best

So, is this a good time to tell you that your scabbard is in a REALLY awkward place?

Awkward characters are the most fun to write.*

Here’s why: you’ve got a situation. Because you’re a writer, it’s probably bad. Some shit’s about to go down and everything stands on the brink of disaster. One false move, one inappropriate word, and the whole thing comes crashing down.

Having an awkward character there is like having a match when you’re standing knee-deep in gunpowder.

It’s all about potential. Awkward characters—and by that I mean characters who say or do the wrong thing at the wrong time, just like real people—are endless sources of complication, hilarity, tragedy, and things going completely pear-shaped. They’re like machines designed to make chaos.

Which, as a writer, is fucking great.

See, the best thing about awkward characters is that you never have to look outside for sources of conflict. They make their own, which is far more compelling than anything I can impose on them. Comets falling from the sky and invasions of Mole-Things from under the earth are way less interesting than a rookie fighter who, because of some broken wiring, can’t stop herself from mouthing off to the biggest, baddest necromancer around.

This isn’t to say external conflict isn’t good and, sometimes, necessary. It can also be fun. But if you’re looking to create tension, most readers instinctively cringe when a protagonist does something stupid. Because we know what it’s like. We’ve done that. Okay, maybe not giving the finger to the five-storey-tall rampaging mech, but we’ve definitely said the wrong thing to our boss, or our partner, or a cop. We’ve done stupid shit and had to reap the consequences.

And knowing that a character can do something awkward is a great source of tension: “Oh, god, Jimmy’s stuck in the middle of the horde of Bob the Bleak-Hearted, he should just give up, give up, Jimmy, don’t start talking again, every time you talk it goes bad.”

Whether or not Jimmy says what’s on his mind to Bob, the tension is there. People will read just to see how bad he fucks it up. He might not fuck it up, especially if this is the Last Great Confrontation and Jimmy has to get his shit together or destroy time and space. But the potential for fuck-uppery permeates the scene, winching ever tighter around the heart of the reader, until the sheer tension makes them want to throw up.

Writers: we’re bastards. Get used to it.

*Though, for me, not always to read. When I’m reading I love those knife-edged, grey area bastards like Harlequin in Myke Cole’s Control Point.

Monday Challenge: Guess Who’s Back?

“I had a headache once. Then I danced on some text.”

Today’s Monday Challenge is inspired by this goddamn migraine, which I thought was gone. It should be gone. I took the medication, got some sleep, did all the right things*. And yet, after a small intermission, it’s back.

Maybe it just slept in this morning.

I sometimes wonder if the part of my brain that gives me weird story ideas and insults like ‘shambling pubefarmer’ is also responsible for the migraines. I mean, there’s got to be something twisted about that little nest of dendrites, right? It can’t be totally normal. When it’s working as it should, I get stories about blood and magic and guns and monsters. But every now and then it throws a rod and the energy that would go into making an idea goes into trying to force-eject my brain from my skull.

Just a speculation, of course.

Anyway, Monday Challenge: something that should be over—that whoever it was happening to thought was over—has continued. Perhaps in a different form, or in a different place. Or maybe in the exact same shape it used to take, stalking around your life or your head. And is it possible to make it go away, once and for all?

*As opposed to the shit I would have done ten years ago, when my thought process could have been described as “just take the edge off with some rum and half a pack of cigarettes, because you’ve got another section of your thesis due tomorrow and that fucker ain’t gonna write itself.”

Monday Challenge: Anything To Declare?

“And I see here you’ve claimed your suitcase is a sovereign nation…”

I just got back from a week in Cuba with friends. There are many stories I could tell of that time—Hector the Crab King, the Kamikaze Nightclub Bat, the Trouble with Troblins—but I’m going to tell the one that happened before I’d even set foot on the island.

When you’re flying internationally, on the last leg of the flight, someone comes around with customs forms for you to fill out. Name, rank, serial number, most recently committed crime, that sort of thing. Just the basics.

And, significantly, any controlled or banned substances you’re bringing into the country.

I’ve never been entirely sure why those sections are included. Perhaps customs officials use it to catch the stupider of the smugglers. Or maybe some people don’t realize what they’re bringing is illegal. “Holy shit, no illegal drugs or firearms? Do I ever feel silly! Better go to the bathroom and flush this kilo of heroin and AK-47. ”

Before any of you get on the phone to Homeland Security or whatever the Canadian equivalent is*, no, I was not smuggling anything illegal. But I had gotten very little sleep the night before, and I didn’t read the customs form carefully enough. I assumed I was checking that I had not brought drugs, firearms, or illegal llamas into the country.

Instead, I had checked that I had.

And not just one thing, either. According to that customs form, I was bringing everything. Liquor? Sure. Drugs? Why not? Animal products, plant seeds, toxins? Hey, check out my suitcase full of kittens, daisies, and ebola.

Thankfully, before I approached the customs window and got taken away to a dark windowless room by the Cuban police, the Husband spotted the mistake. He’s a pharmacist, so it’s just second nature for him to double- and triple-check every document he sees. So, instead of the story of how Steph Was Never Seen Again, this becomes the story of Steph Having Another Laughable Screw-up In A Lifetime Of Them.

But it almost didn’t.

Monday Challenge: someone is having trouble at customs. Did they do anything wrong? Maybe. Or maybe they just screwed something up. Or this can be as Kafka-esque as you like.

And in traveling as in the rest of life, remember: read the damn directions.

*One dude with a German Shepherd and a stern look. But not that stern.

Monday Challenge: Haunted

In retrospect, we should have paid a little more attention to this sign outside the door.

My house is haunted.

I’m, like, ninety percent sure of this. For one thing, the stats are there: 

-Our house is almost a hundred years old, which is pretty fucking old for North America. Shush, Europeans.

-I know for sure that at least one person died here.* 

-There’s an attic, which horror movies have convinced me is essential to any haunting.**

Now, to be clear, I don’t think it’s bad haunted. If there’s something living inside the walls of Chez Snow, it’s the type of spirit that randomly rearranges your books and puts your action figures in compromising positions. Not the type that wants to wear your skin like a cheap suit. 

It’s just that things move when I’m not looking. I’ll put everything away for the night and wake up to find books left out. Maybe the cats are more literate than I thought.

I’ve thought of setting up some kind of Misery-like trap—“The Groot bobble head always faces South.”—but if this thing has been here since we moved in, it’s had time to read that book by now.*** I’d probably find Groot in the same position but Knifehead and Gipsy Danger having anatomically improbable sex. 

Monday challenge on the table: things keep moving around when you’re not looking. Who’s moving them?

Updates may be on a strange schedule this week, because we’re gone away. I hope they’ll go up at the right times, but if not you’ll just have to rest assured that my Type A personality with fix it as soon as possible. Or whenever I’m not playing D&D on a beach somewhere.

*That would be the previous owner, who—according to her children, from whom we bought the house—passed away quite peacefully. Of course, if I was selling a house, that’s what I’d say, too.

**Because where else does the ghost live? Obviously.

***If it hasn’t, get on that shit, ghost.

Monday Challenge: Roll Your Skill Check And Pray To Your Gods

Have you considered bringing Hamster Berserkers into your story? Or your life?

When you write something—especially the first time you write something—there’s a sense of inevitability. That’s the way the scene goes because of course that’s how it goes. Especially if you like it. That’s it, man. No room for error.

Except there is. I’ve played enough tabletop RPGs to know that one critical failure at the wrong time can change the best-laid plans of mice, men, and hobgoblins. And real life always has room for chaos.

Of course, writing a story is different than playing a game and, you know, living, because you do have more control. You can make sure things go the way you want. I’d be lying if I said this control wasn’t a big draw to writing for me. 

But that sense of control can put shackles on your creativity. Sometimes we get so enamoured with the way things should go that we forget about the possibilities and miss out on something a hell of a lot more interesting.

Imagining a critical story point going a different way is also a useful tool for detecting plot holes. If your story relies on a staggering amount of things amazing failing to go wrong, you might want to rethink that. A reader will accept one or two coincidences, but a whole string of them smacks of laziness and a peculiar contempt for the reader’s intelligence. 

This is not to say that whatever counter-factual scene you imagine will replace the one you already had. Sometimes you do get it right the first time. But tweaking so the hero accidentally casts the Spell of Ultimate Destruction and Tacos on her friend instead of the villain can lead to some interesting places.

And let’s face it: we wouldn’t be writers if we didn’t like fucking with people.

Monday Challenge time: There’s a scene you’ve written that went a very specific way. It’s hard to imagine it going any other way now. 

Write it going differently.

Maybe instead of saying exactly the right thing at the right time, someone says the wrong thing. Maybe they screw up. Or, if the scene is a screw up already, maybe they roll a natural 20 on their skill check and fucking kill it. Maybe they’re not there at all, and someone else has to do this.

Twist it, shake it, and see what falls out. You never know: it might be your new favourite thing ever.

Monday Challenge: Obey Gravity! It’s The Law!

Standing on the ground was overrated, anyway.

Been reading more science fiction lately, mostly in the form of short stories, because 1) my attention span in shorter in the summer and 2) the best way to keep what attention remains is through spectacle. I’m pretty sure that’s the reasoning behind every summer blockbuster ever made, but since I love meaningful explosions, I’m okay with it.

In science fiction, however, especially space exploration, it’s amazing how many planets are just like ours.

Sometimes it’s explained: terraforming, the space equivalent of gentrification, goes on a lot. Other times it’s not. And I get why: you want characters that relate to the (hopefully) human audience, so your aliens need some kind of bridge to make them easier to understand or feel sympathy for. This is the premise on which the entire original series of Star Trek is built.* Go to a strangely earth-like planet, bang one of the locals, leave. Probably with space herpes.

Of course, this is a vast generalization. There’s lots of science fiction out there in which the environments—and therefore those who live in those environments—look so different as to be nearly incomprehensible. That comes with its own set of difficulties: how do you explain the body language of a species with shared bodies? What expression indicates sarcasm in a hyper-intelligent shade of the colour blue? Nevertheless, at least these attempts show that someone’s trying to explore their own imagination. They’re thought of what it would be like if something in the physical world as we know it was different.

So, now you get to as well.

Monday Challenge: Write a scene in which one of the fundamental laws of nature (gravity, the speed of light, conservation of energy, the makeup of a breathable atmosphere, whatever) is different. Maybe it was always different, maybe it just changed in the last five seconds**. Either way, find a thread of change and follow it to see where it leads.

*Well, that and the limitations of budgets and special effects in those days.

**Though if it’s breathable atmosphere that’s changed, that’s going to be a short scene.

Monday Challenge: First Steps

STFU n00b.

I’m starting something new this week: I’m going to learn acrylic painting. I draw (mostly ink and markers) and I used to dabble in watercolours, but this will be a new experience.

I expect it to be messy.

Being a beginner at something is both exciting as hell and frustrating as trying to explain superhero retcons to non-fans.* Exciting because: new thing! I will make all the things! And they will be great! Hey, do you think this paint is poisonous? Frustrating because: why does new thing not come out like I imagined? Why am I not great at this right now? I AM GREAT AT EVERYTHING.

It’s probably for the best that Snowman’s working a lot of hours this month.

There’s a great scene in the Engineer Trilogy by K.J. Parker in which one of the main characters, a nobleman in hiding, has to sew something for the first time ever. Because he can’t reveal his ineptitude for fear of being discovered, he can’t ask for help. So he instead looks at the materials and the tools and works out what sewing is from the first principles. It’s a very funny little scene in the middle of what is a near-constant storm of grimness**, and it gives a great look at learning to do something for the first time ever.

We all have to start somewhere with skills. I’ve been learning to code in Python for the last couple of weeks, and, boy, was that eye-opening. And I expect that acrylic painting will be the same.** Writing sure as hell was: a mixture of thrill and frustration, interspersed with moments of brightness and wild inspiration.

Or, if you want a relatively universal example: remember having sex for the first time?***

Monday Challenge, in honour of my upcoming +2 Art Skill: Write about something trying to do something for the very first time. Awkwardness, frustration, wild inspiration, and all.

*”No, see, it’s fine because in this timeline, she’s really that girl’s sister, except they were both exposed to Zorg radiation, which made them think they were the same person….”

** But with less of a possibility of creating a roboctopus army.

***Spoiler alert, virgins: it’s gonna be awkward.

Monday Challenge: Man’s Best Friend

In retrospect, the Millers regretted letting Mittens get his firearms licence.

I learned yesterday that Jezebel, my friend’s obese, cantankerous, generally demonic cat, no longer waddles the planet. She was occasionally difficult and often gave the stink eye for absolutely no reason, but she could also be very cute. Usually when she wanted something.

She died as she lived, though: I’m told she bit the veterinarian who put her down.*

Jezebel might have been a demon of the ancient world** but she was also someone’s beloved pet. As someone who has owned some kind of furry quadruped since the age of three, I find it hard to imagine life without pets. Even the ones that are jerks. From the family dog that used to kick me out of my own bed to the cat that dragged an entire chicken breast out of the frying pan and ate it under the couch, they’ve given my life some interesting stories.

So maybe it’s time to give my stories some interesting pets.

Consider, if the plot allows, giving one of your characters a pet. From a story point of view, they serve so many purposes. They humanize villains, aid heroes in need, allow someone to monologue without talking to themselves too much…

And, depending on your story, they may be more than just something to cuddle with while your character watches reruns of Parks and Rec. They may be intelligent. They might be a helper pet for someone with a disability. They might be equipped with reinforced titanium jaws to guard against intruders.

Monday Challenge: write about a character and their pet. Pet dog, pet horse, pet acid-spitting wyvern. Or, if you have alien characters, pet human. What purpose does the pet serve? What do they do? Can they do any neat tricks? What will they do for their owner? And what will their owner do for them?

*Pour one out for a fellow honey badger.

**I should point out that this is not in fact a judgement of her. I have a demon of my own, and while I occasionally wish Fender would be less bitey, I do love her.